After another particularly bloody week in which the Americans and their Western allies killed more than 100 Afghan civilians, President Hamid Karzai stood on the lawn of the presidential palace on June 23 to denounce the air strikes and artillery fire as “careless”. He asserted: “Afghan life is not cheap and should not be treated as such.” These sound like brave words, but they carry little weight with the Americans or anyone else. They, as well as Karzai, know that Afghans’ lives are indeed cheap. Does Karzai know how many Afghans the Americans and other Western occupation troops have killed since October 2001? Does he even know how many have been killed this year? These are the statistics the Americans and other Westerners are simply not interested in. Their only concern is with their own casualty figures, because those are the numbers that cause problems at home, as Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper discovered after the death of three more Canadian soldiers last month. As a sop to public sentiment he announced on June 22 that the Canadian presence in Afghanistan would not be extended beyond February 2009 unless it had public and parliamentary support.
Behind the rising concern about military casualties lie two other factors. The first has to do with the purpose of the mission in Afghanistan, which remains undefined. The second, even more worrying to the allies, is the increasing involvement of Russia and China in Afghanistan. History, it seems, has gone full circle. Less than three decades ago it was Russian troops fighting the Afghans; the West came to support them to undermine the Soviet Union. It was a carefully laid trap for the Soviet bear; after a thousand stab wounds it bled to death. Now an assertive Russia sees America’s involvement as an opportunity to return the favour. Afghanistan is once again becoming a battleground for the “great game” between a declining superpower and an assertive rival.
Moscow’s involvement is subtle, as Sirajuddin, son of the famed Afghan commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, told Najibullah Zadran in an interview (Aafaq Monthly, June 2007). Sirajuddin, who leads the resistance in Khost, Paktika and Paktia provinces, said that some weeks ago, when the resistance was short of ammunition, some appeared mysteriously on the market so that the fighters could purchase it. He is of the opinion that Russia had supplied the equipment so that the resistance would not be weakened. The Russians have no love for the Taliban or Afghans in general, so it is the same game again. The Americans did not support the Afghans during the eighties because they liked their primitive culture or medieval ways: Washingtonused them to weaken and bring down the Soviet Union. The shoe is now on the other foot.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has been asserting himself in other ways as well. On the eve of the G8 summit in Germany (June 6-8), he criticised the US’s plan to install a defence system in Czechoslovakia and Poland. He threatened to direct his own missiles at targets in Europe. Despite its name, the US missile-system is anything but defensive; it poses a grave threat to Russia’s security and an old KGB hand like Putin cannot ignore it. He regards it as a declaration of war against his country. At a recent press conference, Putin said: “If this missile system is put in place, it will work automatically with the entire nuclear capability of the United States. It will be an integral part of the US nuclear capability.” He went on to say that this would disrupt the current configuration of international security and force Russia to begin work on a new regime of tactical nuclear weapons. Putin hinted that since US president George Bush had unilaterally abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002, Moscow was left with no choice but to update and extend its own defence systems to confront any further encroachments on its territory.
As if to emphasise his seriousness, less than ten hours after the closing ceremonies of the G8 summit Putin addressed 200 corporate leaders at the International Economic Forum in St Petersburg. He left little doubt about how he planned to counter Bush’s missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland. He outlined his vision of a “Moscow-centred” new world order that would create a “new balance of power”. An important pillar of this new world order would be an alternative global financial centre away from the dollar. “The new architecture of economic relations requires a completely new approach. Russia intends to become an alternative global financial centre and to make the rouble a reserve currency for central banks,” he asserted. He also criticised international institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the IMF, which are all dominated by the US or Europe, for being “archaic, undemocratic and inflexible.”
Aware that militarily America is stuck in the Iraqi and Afghan quagmires and that economically it is in serious difficulties, with a total debt of $46 trillion ($8 trillion external and $38 trillion internal), Putin is going for America’s soft underbelly: the dollar. He has also decided to weaken the institutions that have traditionally enhanced America’s wealth and power. True, 64 percent of the world’s currency reserves are still held in dollars, but this is likely to change if an alternative currency emerges that reserve banks can turn to. The Chinese, too, are thinking about diversifying their reserve holdings, because they are nervous about the declining value of the American dollar. Emphasising the inherent unfairness of the current system, which relies almost entirely on the dollar, resulting in negative effects on many smaller countries’ economies and financial reserves, Putin declared: “There can be only one answer to this challenge: the creation of several world currencies and several financial centres.”
Putin is not alone in thinking about a new global economic architecture. In the last few months a number of countries, including Iran, Syria, the UAE, Kuwait, Venezuela and Norway, have announced that they are either cutting back on their US dollar reserves or converting to the euro or a “basket of currencies”. The dollar’s ascendancy is at the very centre of American power, and yet the downturn is visible everywhere. If the dollar loses its place as the world’s preferred “reserve currency”, the US will have to pay its massive current-account deficit and live within its means, something unimaginable only a few years ago.
All this is the direct result of the military humiliations the US is faced with in Iraq and Afghanistan, thanks to the shortsighted policies of the neocons in Washington. With friends like these, who needs enemies? Iraq and Afghanistan may yet prove harbingers of the demise of another superpower.